4th Dec 2023


Will Europeans' support for Ukraine survive the winter?

  • Surveys show there is a growing gap between the many European governments' positions and the public mood (Photo: Alice Kotlyarenko on Unsplash)
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As Europe enters winter — with so far mild temperature but soaring inflation — concern is growing over the political price of the economic backlash of efforts to contain Russian president Vladimir Putin.

While gas prices have been somewhat tamed, recession looms over Europe with some arguing that the European Central Bank's intervention might be overkill.

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Europeans "are split about the long-term goals" with regards to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a poll in June by the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR) showed.

Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo told the Financial Times in an interview earlier this month that European governments had to be "prudent" not only to counter soaring inflation, but also to contain the risk of social unrest.

"Our populations are getting invoices which are completely insane. At some point, it will snap. I understand that people are angry [...] people don't have the means to pay it," De Croo said.

A poll in May by the EU's Eurobarometer concluded that 80 percent of Europeans support economic sanctions, and that 59 percent are satisfied with the EU's response.

In July, an Insa survey for the Bild am Sonntag revealed that 74 percent of respondents expected an economic downturn and 83 percent believed prices will continue to rise.

The poll also showed that 47 percent answered that Germany is harming itself more than Russia with sanctions. Only 12 percent said Russia will suffer more.

In France, unconditional support for sanctions against Russia stands at 40 percent compared with 46 percent in March, Bloomberg cited from a poll last month.

"Every mild week in winter is a God given," an EU official quipped when speaking to EUobserver on condition of anonymity.

"The big ones [EU countries] will not turn away from Ukraine," the official said, adding that "there is no way back to Putin."

"The US would not let that happen. The future of the Nato is now being decided in Europe, and the US knows it," the official added.

War and peace

The ECFR poll showed that 35 percent of respondents want the war to end as soon as possible. Those who thought that the "more pressing goal is to punish Russia" were 22 percent.

With the exception of Poland, in the other nine other countries where the poll was taken, the first camp was larger.

"Unless something dramatically changes, they [Europeans] will oppose a long and protracted war," the ECFR warned, saying people are worried about the cost of living, and nuclear threats.

ECFR argued that governments need to avoid polarisation of societies, and "present arms deliveries and sanctions as part of a defensive war".

"There is always danger that something will happen," the EU diplomat said, adding: "We don't know how different the dynamics will be in the room [in the EU] with the new Italian government, or the new Swedish government".

Piotr Buras, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told EUobserver that a lot depends on how national governments and the whole EU reacts, and what they can do economically to protect European societies this winter, for example with the possibility of a joint financial pool.

"I see the risk, but I don't think there will be a complete breakdown of the support," Buras said.

Proving how fluid the political situation is and how much depends on national political calculations, Italy's new far-right prime minister Giorgia Meloni has voiced support for Ukraine, Nato and the EU.

Minding the gap

"The resilience of European democracies will mostly depend on the capacity of governments to sustain public support for policies that will ultimately bring pain to different social groups," the ECFR warned, adding that the gap between the positions of governments and public mood is growing.

The ECFR study argues that the key to maintaining EU unity is "to take the fears of escalation seriously and to present the conflict as a defensive struggle against Russian aggression rather than talking about Ukrainian victory and defeating Russia".

Besides helping households to withstand the economic blows, the language of unity and the Russian threat to Europe seem to be the dam standing in the way of a major shift in public opinion.

However, hardline and opportunist political groups are attempting to make political gain from the war's economic impact, and exploit the emerging divide.

"The energy sanctions were imposed by Brussels on the member states, and since then energy prices have skyrocketed," Hungary's prime minister Orbán Viktor has said.

"When this happened, Brussels promised to end the war and hurt the aggressor more than the member states of the EU. Instead, today all citizens of Europe pay a punitive surcharge for energy," he added.

Hungary is conducting another "national consultation" on the sanctions with leading questions that blame the sanctions.

Austria's far-right Freedom Party has also called for sanctions to be put to a referendum and said the government should veto any further sanctions before the vote.

French MEP Nathalie Loiseau recently said in the European Parliament that Russia's propaganda is designed to sow the message that sanctions aren't working, and only damage Europe.

A US intelligence report recently indicated that Russia has spent €300m to promote its propaganda in the EU, some of it on European parties.

Parallel battlefield

Katarína Klingová, a senior research fellow of the Centre for Democracy and Resilience at the Bratislava-based think tank, Globsec Policy Institute, told EUobserver that in many central and eastern European countries, pro-Kremlin actors are "spreading insecurity about energy and inflation".

She warned that already in 2020 polls showed that central and eastern Europeans would sacrifice some of their human rights and freedoms for better financial benefits and security — so domestic measures mitigating the economic fallout will be key.

"Anti-governmental protests organised in Prague recently, among others, by people with connection to the Kremlin show that internal domestic issues are a parallel battlefield of the war in Ukraine," Klingová said.

She added that "malign domestic and foreign actors are very successfully using narratives of peace", which is that if the West would not support Ukraine, peace would be restored fast.

The course of the war could trigger a backlash in all directions, and sustained disinformation efforts, along with economic hardship could erode public support. But mainstream politicians for now are unlikely to turn, officials in Brussels think.

"When I see how much the European politicians invested in the permanent future support for Ukraine, they cannot say no now. They will push because they will have to," an EU diplomat told EUobserver.

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